It might be the comeback of 2013. The Los Angeles Dodgers went from last place in their division four months ago to the National League Championship Series after Monday night's 4-3 win against the Atlanta Braves. And a 22-year-old Cuban defector has been credited with sparking the turnaround: No. 66, Yasiel Puig.
Veteran sportscaster Vin Scully dubbed Puig the "wild horse" because he throws long without regard to a cutoff man and steals bases at risky times. There's been plenty of hand-wringing on sports talk radio about the rookie outfielder's "reckless" behavior. But Puig's aggressive approach to the game hasn't hurt the team in the playoffs.
"You don't need to be a genius when you see a player like him," says Mike Brito, a 35-year veteran scout for the Dodgers, about his fellow Cuban. Brito sports a starched white guayabera, straw fedora and three Dodgers championship and World Series rings on his thick, wrinkled fingers. He says he first saw the rookie phenom at a baseball tournament more than three years ago in Canada. Puig was a teenager playing for the Cuban national team.
"He was first on my list," says Brito, in a thick Cuban accent. "Oooooh, he had a gun for an arm," he adds, unable to mask the pride in his voice. And when the scout saw an article in a Mexican newspaper that a baseball player named Yasiel Puig had defected from Cuba, "I said this has to be the same Yasiel Puig and I told my boss, 'We gotta go to Mexico and get him; he's gonna cost a lot of money, but he's worth it.' "
Puig's interpreter told me that the 22-year-old had three pairs of boxer shorts and a pair of sandals to his name then. Now, he lives off a $42 million, seven-year contract that he signed shortly after his defection. And Puig is on the shortlist for National League Rookie of the Year.
"Yasiel was, I think a kind of turning point; he brought a lot of energy to our club, and I think a lot of guys fell right in line with that," says Dodgers manager Don Mattingly about how Puig quickly sparked the team's comeback. Mattingly calls managing Puig "attending Puig University." That's a diplomatic way of describing the school of hard knocks where you learn to discipline a phenom who doesn't always listen: stealing bases when he's told not to; throwing long when he shouldn't. Puig is both exuberant on the field and pouty. And he's been accused of not understanding American baseball etiquette.
Many of the sports media have been less diplomatic than Mattingly. The rookie right fielder has been described as abrasive, bratty and a curse as much as a blessing for the Dodgers. He's inspired angry, foaming-at-the-mouth rants from sportcasters like Toronto's Bryan Angus. (The sharp reaction is interesting, given how little Puig says to the media and how cautious he is when making public remarks.)
"I was like 'WOW!' " says Adrian Burgos Jr. about the first time he saw Puig play. "The joy, the power, the speed, the all-out hustle harkens back to how the Negro Leagues transformed baseball. This is great to see in the major leagues again," says Burgos, a history professor who penned Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball.
Burgos has traveled to Cuba for his research and says Puig plays with the energy and exuberance of many baseball players on the island. He says Cuban fans feel a sense of ownership of their baseball teams and players because the Cuban government funds and runs the leagues. Baseball is a source of national pride, and on-field drama is played up for the benefit of Cuban fans. Burgos says it's not just about winning; it's about entertaining the spectators: "Players play to the crowd in Cuba." He adds, "They want to make the crowd be loud, so they play up the highs and the lows. But those behaviors that work in Cuba become the basis of how they get chastised in the American press; they're 'too loud, too celebratory.' "
Burgos argues that the kind of angry rants Puig has inspired have a lot to do with race and says this type of criticism can be traced back throughout baseball's history. Roberto Clemente is now remembered as a saintly figure who died in a plane crash en route to deliver humanitarian aid to the victims of an earthquake. But during his career, Clemente (who was a black Puerto Rican) was often criticized by sportswriters who derided him as a lazy, ungrateful hypochondriac who faked injury so he wouldn't have to play. Vic Power, Clemente's contemporary in the major leagues who was also a black Puerto Rican, was criticized for a "flashy," "flamboyant" and "reckless" approach to playing first base. (Power would field the ball with one hand instead of two, something many first basemen do today because it's more efficient.)
Burgos says proud, gregarious, Afro-Latino ball players have not had an easy time of it in the American media, especially if, like Puig, they're unapologetic about who they are and about their style of play. The same words come up over and over again to describe them, says Burgos: ungrateful, reckless, flashy, needing to be taught and tamed.
Ever since his first month in the majors, Puig has been fielding not only baseballs but criticism of his behavior. And if you search his name today, you'll get a number of stories about how he celebrated the Dodgers final victory over the Braves by dumping Gatorade on teammate Juan Uribe's head, ruining a TV camera and a sportscaster's suit. (Oops!)
It's a wonder how a 22-year-old who doesn't speak the language, isn't familiar with the culture and can't go back to his home country can stay focused enough to play at all, let alone maintain a starring role in the starting lineup of an American major league baseball team.
Brito, the scout credited with persuading the Dodgers to sign Puig, hopes the young Cuban defector will keep the high-powered performance going through the National League Championship Series and into the World Series. Brito wants another World Series championship ring to add to his collection. "That's 1981, 1988," he says looking down at both hands. "And 2013 is gonna go over here."